Ordinary & Extraordinary
Sermon preached at Enmore, First Sunday after Christmas, 31st. December 2017
Reading: Luke 2.22–40
Luke’s Gospel begins with extraordinary events: Zechariah the devout priest is visited by an angel declaring that despite their age, his wife Elizabeth is to give birth to a son who is to be named John. Hot on the heels of this event, the same angel visits Elizabeth’s relative Mary and tells her that she will be the mother of Jesus who will be called the Son of the Most High and whose reign will never end. We then have recorded the remarkable events surrounding the birth of Jesus, the census requiring the journey to Bethlehem, Jesus born and then cradled in a manger because there was no room in the inn and finally the visit of the shepherds. Luke’s narrative is orderly as he promised it would be but you have to say the events he recounts are extraordinary. But on this Sunday after Christmas we move from the extraordinary to the apparently ordinary: Mary and Joseph going to the temple to fulfil the demands of the law in the same way thousands before them had done.
Mary and Joseph were visiting the temple for two purposes. Luke tells us that they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem ‘to be presented to the Lord.’ The background to this presentation was the Law of Moses which declared that a woman’s first child must be offered to the Lord. This offering was in memory of the Exodus, when the Israelites escaped from bondage in Egypt, following the last plague-the death of all the first born Egyptian children. In Israel’s early history first born children were often brought to the temple to serve God there-we recall the story of Samuel and Hannah bringing her first born child to the priest, Eli, to work in the tabernacle. Over the centuries this practiced was discontinued but instead parents brought a donation to the temple. The first born child was in effect being redeemed or bought back from God, who had declared in Numbers 3.13, that ‘all the first born in Israel shall be mine.’
The second reason for the visit to the temple was for Mary’s purification which was separate from the presentation. According to the Mosaic Law a woman was unclean for forty days after the birth of a boy and eighty days after the birth of a girl. Following this time, the woman had to go to the temple and bring the required offering: a lamb and a bird. However, if the woman was poor she was allowed to bring two birds-pigeons or turtle doves. Mary was poor. Luke is at pains to tell us that Mary and Joseph fulfilled all the requirements of the law. We may find the rituals that Mary performed rather strange, or even offensive but Jesus’ parents were simply doing the things that all devout Jews did. Jesus grew up in a family where the law was respected and faithfully observed. In his own ministry Jesus would often be critical of the teachers of the law, who made the law into a burden but he remained subject to the law’s righteous demands.
There is much to be said for observing religious rituals. They help to maintain an order and pattern in our lives. They assist us in keeping good habits like reading our Bibles, praying regularly and meeting for worship and receiving the Eucharist. On the Sunday after Christmas I realise I’m preaching to the converted-after all this is the Sunday for the true believers –but we live in an age when rituals are often disparaged. When I retired from Hunters Hill, I was rather puzzled by the reaction of some of my fellow clergy who said things like, ‘It must be great relief not having to get up and go to Church every Sunday!’ Meeting with God’s people on Sunday should never be a burden or done simply because we have to!
But once again in Luke we move from the ordinary to the extraordinary. While in the temple observing the rituals of presentation and purification, suddenly Mary and Joseph are met by two people, Simeon and Anna who make remarkable claims about the child, Jesus. (Throughout his Gospel Luke will bring gender balance to his narrative. If he describes the healing of a man we will often then find the healing of a woman. A parable about a man will be balanced by one about a woman and so on.) Simeon is described as “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel and the Holy Spirit rested on him.” The phrase, ‘the consolation of Israel’ expressed the hope that all devout Jews carried with them that one day God would send his promised Messiah who would restore Israel to its former glory and bring peace and prosperity to his people. The Holy Spirit gave Simeon the eyes to see that this child of humble origins was none other than the one long expected. Simeon literally means, ‘God has heard’ and this name fits perfectly with what follows in Luke’s account. Taking the child in his arms, Simeon prays, using the familiar words of the BCP, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For my eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.”
Simeon’s hymn of praise has been part of Christian liturgy from very early times often as an evening prayer. Having held the Christ child in his arms, Simeon was content and ready to die. He had witnessed the fulfilment of God’s great promise to send a redeemer and there was nothing more that he wished for. As Christians we look forward to Christ’s appearance as King of Kings and Lord of Lords when he establishes the new heavens and the new earth. But in the meantime we have the light of his presence with us day by day in the person of his Holy Spirit. So, we like Simeon can have peace even in our troubled world. Mary and Joseph must have felt both pleasure and puzzlement at Simeon’s words about their son but would surely have been troubled by the content of his blessing: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Simeon understood that the Messiah would not be welcomed by all- the kingdoms of this world would resist the claims of the kingdom inaugurated by the child held in his arms. Mary would witness her son’s greatness but also witness his humiliation at the hands of cruel men. The expression Simeon uses, ‘a sign that will be opposed’ can be translated perhaps more accurately as ‘a sign of contradiction.’ In that case his words anticipate the ultimate sign of contradiction, namely the cross. The cross, the sign of pain and death becomes the symbol of hope and of life.
Like Simeon, Anna is old; eighty four years was well beyond the normal life span for that era. Anna is a prophet, widowed years before and she spends her days and nights in the temple, serving God by praying and fasting. She, too, recognises that Jesus is no ordinary child and joins with Simeon in praising God and telling people about this infant sent from God. Her words are not recorded but she represents a vast army of faithful praying women through the centuries who have kept the faith in good times and in bad and who have served God and the Church with a ministry of prayer. So on this Sunday after Christmas we pause to remember these two faithful servants of God, Simeon and Anna who in an age of doubt and uncertainty continued to worship God and held firm to the belief that God would keep his promises. May God give us the grace and courage to follow their examples.